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Consumers To Get Household Cleaner Chemical Info, But Questions of How and When Remain

Public interest groups back swift timetable, ‘one-stop shopping’ ingredient info for consumers
October 6, 2010
Albany, NY —

New York State is set to begin enforcing the state’s household cleaner ingredient right-to-know law—the only one of its kind in the country. Today, the agency took an important first step, meeting with public health, consumer, and environmental advocates and industry groups to discuss how and when consumers will get access to this crucial ingredient information.

Public interest groups are backing a swift timetable for ingredient disclosure as well as a convenient information hub for consumers to search and compare chemical ingredients among different brands and products.

“Consumers should not have to guess what is in their cleaning products,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. “People trying to avoid allergens and harmful chemicals need to be able to get this critical information and one way would be through a ‘one-stop shopping’ information hub. We hope New York State will help make this the industry norm.”

Twenty-eight groups representing a range of consumer, labor, health, environmental and good government groups signed on to a list of recommendations (PDF) for state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials to consider as they begin enforcing the law, which requires manufacturers of household cleaners to reveal the chemical ingredients in their products and any health risks they pose.

“Full ingredient disclosure is a critical step toward ensuring safer, healthier products,” said Kathy Curtis, policy director from Clean New York. “The sooner we get this information to the public, the sooner consumers in New York and around the country will benefit.”

In letters (PDF) sent last month to the companies and public health, environmental, and consumer groups, DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said that the State would begin requiring companies to disclose chemical information, as required by a set of 34-year-old regulations.

“This is a long-overdue protection that consumers need and deserve,” said New York State United Teachers Vice President Kathleen Donahue.

Independent studies show a link between many chemicals commonly found in cleaning products and health effects ranging from nerve damage to hormone disruption.

“Everyone knows somebody with breast cancer,” said Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition President Karen Miller. “While researchers are connecting the dots between toxic exposure found in products we use every day, regulatory agencies must step up the pace to provide consumers with the right to know what they are bringing into their homes.”

Attendees at today’s meeting included representatives from Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Arm & Hammer parent company Church & Dwight, Lysol-maker Reckitt Benckiser, American Chemistry Council, American Cleaning Institute, Fragrance Materials Association, Consumer Specialty Products Association. Representing public interest groups are Clean New York, Consumers Union, Earthjustice, Environmental Advocates of New York, Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, Inc, Learning Disabilities Association of New York State, Prevention Is the Cure, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Silent Spring Institute, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE).

The last time these groups and companies were all in one place, it was in the courtroom. Last year, on behalf of WVE, Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and American Lung Association in New York, the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice sued household cleaning giants Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Church and Dwight and Reckitt-Benckiser for failing to submit required semi-annual ingredient reports. A judge dismissed the lawsuit this summer without ruling on the merits of the groups’ claims. But during the court case, the companies said they would file disclosure reports if asked to do so by the State.

“By making the companies come clean about what is in their products, New York State is initiating an age of greater transparency and is empowering people to protect themselves and their families,” said Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg, who will be handling a likely appeal of the case against the cleaning product companies, which have yet to file any reports.

New York’s policy move could have national implications, as momentum builds here and abroad for toxic chemical reform. Congress is considering an overhaul to U.S. chemical policy that would require the chemical industry to prove the safety of a chemical before it could be used in products. Internationally, companies are preparing to comply with a similar European law (known as REACH) already taking effect.

“It's high time that New York State enforce the law and protect consumers by holding cleaning product manufacturers accountable for the dangerous chemicals in their products,” said Saima Anjam of Environmental Advocates of New York.

Cleaning product manufacturers are taking notice of the changing climate toward toxics in products. In response to a letter sent by the groups involved in the court case, several companies, including the California-based Sunshine Makers, Inc. (manufacturers of Simple Green products), filed reports (PDF) with the State for the first time. And three weeks after the disclosure lawsuit was filed, household cleaner manufacturing giant SC Johnson announced that it would begin disclosing the chemical ingredients in its products through product labels and a website.

“We are incredibly pleased that the New York DEC is requesting this information from product makers. Consumers have a right to know what they are being exposed from cleaning products,” said Erin Switalski, executive director of Women’s Voices for the Earth.  “Making product ingredient information easily accessible to the public is a critical step towards protecting the health and well-being of all consumers.”

Studies show links between chemicals in common household cleaners and respiratory irritation, asthma, and allergies. Occupational exposures to some ethylene glycol ethers, often used as solvents in cleaning products, are associated with red blood cell damage, reproductive system damage, and birth defects. Some solvents in cleaning products are also toxic to the nervous system.

“New York's cleaning product right-to-know policy promises to be great news for workers,” said Joel Shufro, Executive Director of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “More transparency about these chemicals will lead to safer cleaning products overall. That means safer working conditions for the people who keep our schools, hospitals, and office buildings clean.”

“Many chemicals in cleaning products and air fresheners are endocrine disruptors which are suspected of having links to cancer, and which alter mammary gland development in animal studies. The public has the right to know if some of the potentially harmful chemicals of concern, such as alkyphenols, terpenes, benzene, some antimicrobial agents and certain synthetic musks are in the products they use,” said Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer! Program Coordinator Margaret Roberts.

“The State of New York's commitment to full disclosure of chemical ingredients is a significant step,” said Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Conservation Program Manager Roger Downs. “Now New Yorkers can make educated choices about the household products that they use.”

“With a New York law already in place to protect children at schools from the toxic chemicals in cleaning products, the enforcement of this disclosure requirement will give parents the opportunity to make their homes as safe as schools,” Grassroots Environmental Education Executive Director Patti Wood.

“We commend the DEC for requiring manufacturers to ‘come clean’ about the ingredients in their products,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with NYPIRG. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Contacts

Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.